How Small-Town Newspapers Ignored Local Lynchings
Sherilynn A. Ifill on Justice (and Its Absence) in the 1930s
As in most small towns in the 1930s, local newspapers on the Maryland Shore were more than just sources of news. They were a key means by which communities learned about the goings-on in adjacent towns and through which communities polished their image. Stories in local papers most often showed the “best face” of the town. Shore papers were no exception. There was a kind of “booster” quality to the reporting. Bad news—about the failing Shore economy, for example—was downplayed. Positive, upbeat stories about charity drives and local civic activity were prominent. National news included one or two stories about the rise of Nazism in Germany and Winston Churchill’s ill health but tended toward the more mundane. The impending repeal of Prohibition was a big story, which papers large and small never seemed to tire of. But for the most part local papers were a conduit through which Shore towns could reflect their best self-image.
A plethora of local papers chronicled life on the Shore—the Democratic Messenger in Worcester County, the Marylander and Herald in Somerset County, the Star-Democrat in Talbot County, and the Cambridge Banner in Dorchester County. In Wicomico County, the local paper was and still is the Salisbury Times, known today as the Daily Times. Purchased by the Truitt brothers, Charles and Alfred, in 1923, the Salisbury Times provided a daily diet of national news and chronicled life in Wicomico County, from the trivial to the monumental. No community event was too small to escape mention in the Times—garden club meetings, engagements, charity drives, were all given the careful and supportive attention that only a local paper, steeped in the community, can give. Unless of course the event in question took place in the black community. News about the new black high school, about black church fund-raisers, and about the doings of black civic groups did not appear in the pages of the Times in the early 1930s, and if they did, they were relegated to small announcements buried in the back pages of the paper.
This is not to say that stories about blacks never appeared in the Times. They did. These stories, however, were invariably accounts of black criminality. Historian Cezar Jackson opens his study of local media responses to the lynchings in the 1930s with an observation that a month before the murder of the Green Davis family, the Salisbury Times ran a front-page story describing the flogging of a black man convicted of domestic assault. The flogging was administered with a whip by the Wicomico County sheriff Murray Phillips and was attended by Levin C. Bailey, the state’s attorney for the county. Although the flogging was held inside the jail, 300 people stood outside and did not disperse until the beating had been completed.
When a black person was accused of a violent crime against a white person, local papers placed these stories prominently on the front page. For this reason, the Times and other local Shore papers were full of stories about blacks from the fall of 1931 until the same time in 1933, when Euel Lee was finally executed.
It is easy to see why the murder of the Green Davis family and the case of Euel Lee would garner a great deal of media attention. The news that a black laborer had murdered a white family riveted the residents not only of Worcester County, where the crime occurred, but of the entire Shore. The crime was an ominous one. Many white families relied to some extent on black labor. The prospect that a black farmhand, who perhaps merited little attention or notice, might strike out violently and with staggering brutality against a white employer raised a million fears among Shore whites. Thus whites read about the Lee case with rapt attention. And the papers encouraged this attention by serving up the Lee story in dramatic and vivid description.
From the very beginning, when papers described the killing as an “axe murder,” a consistent pattern of inflammatory disinformation plagued coverage of the story. This hyperbolic and inaccurate reporting in the local papers of the Shore had dire consequences, however. The more brutal the crime alleged to have been committed by a black assailant, the more whites could feel justified in subjecting the black defendant to the barbarity of a lynching.
Race was an explicit dimension of the local papers’ report on interracial crimes. Black defendants were expressly identified by race, and their guilt in local papers seemed a certainty. The names of black defendants were optional. A black defendant could just as easily be referred to as a “confessed Negro slayer” as by his name. When Matthew Williams allegedly shot D. J. Elliot, the headline in the Salisbury Times simply read, “Negro Kills D. J. Elliot Then Self.”
The local papers were unabashedly partisan. Their interest in presenting Shore whites in the best possible light was openly admitted. When Matthew Williams was lynched, this protectiveness went into overdrive. The Salisbury Times took the extraordinary step of deciding not to report on the lynching. Both publishers of the newspaper, Charles and Alfred Truitt, observed at least part of the lynching. Charles Truitt, in particular, saw Matthew Williams hung outside the courthouse. Charles Truitt was the AP correspondent for the Shore and dutifully wired his story to the AP describing the lynching of Williams. But he refused to publish what he saw on the night of December 4th in his own paper.
On December 5th the headline of the lead story in the Salisbury Times was about the lynching, although that word was never used. The headline read, “Coroner’s Jury to Investigate Slayer’s Death.” The first paragraph provided only a bare-bones account of what had happened: “Matthew Williams, confessed slayer of D. J. Elliot at his office yesterday afternoon, was removed from the Peninsula General Hospital last night and hanged in the Courthouse yard. The hanging was witnessed by hundreds of people.” That account is the only description of the lynching that ever appeared in the Times. Instead, on the front page of the same paper, the Truitt brothers published a statement, which read as follows:
This paper is omitting the details of the demonstration here last night when Matthew Williams, confessed slayer of D. J. Elliot, was hanged in the Courthouse square for the very obvious reason that almost every reader of our paper had had an opportunity to learn of them first hand from eyewitnesses.
The facts which formed the background for the demonstration and the direct causes are also well known and a repetition of them would be superfluous.
The slaying of Mr. Elliot was deplorable as was also the mob scene.
Every person living on the Eastern Shore, realizing the background, should use his best judgment and pay little heed to the overdrawn pictures that will be painted by metropolitan newspapers who have no obligation to this peninsula and whose only purpose is that of so preparing news as to increase their circulations. It becomes a contest among the larger papers to see which one can bring out new excitable features of such a story.
This paper is a part of the Eastern Shore, and always tries to serve the best interests of the peninsula. We at all times deplore violence, either of an individual or a congregation of individuals, but when violence is done, it behooves every one of us to co-operate in speeding up a return to absolutely normal and harmonious conditions.
The statement was extraordinary for several reasons. Besides the obviously unusual step of refusing to cover what was the most important event to have happened in the county in some time, the Truitts’ statement operated as a charge to the public. Quite unabashedly, the Truitts instructed whites in Salisbury to remain silent about the lynching, for the good of their communities. The prime directive from the leadership of the local paper was that whites should “return to absolutely normal and harmonious conditions.” With this statement, the Times articulated for the community the expected code of behavior. According to his own account, publisher Charles Truitt genuinely believed that there might be a “Negro uprising” in Salisbury. He insisted, even years after the lynchings, that there really was Communist infiltration of black communities on the Shore, and that the Elliot murder was part of a larger plot by blacks to assassinate white leaders in the town. For these reasons, Truitt regarded it as his obligation to maintain peace and calm in the town. No evidence of a “Negro uprising” or of Communist influence in the death of D. J. Elliot was ever found to corroborate Truitt’s suspicions. And Truitt declined to report on or identify the sources of his view in the paper. The statement certainly gives no indication that Truitt was doing anything more than accommodating the sensibilities of white townspeople, who did not want to face the reality that a lynching had occurred in their town. The use of the word “demonstration” rather than “lynching” was itself a kind of avoidance, an effort to assist whites in minimizing what happened on the night of December 4th.
The decision not to cover the Matt Williams lynching in the Salisbury Times warrants examination, discussion, and analysis. The news blackout on the Williams lynching enabled whites to minimize the significance of this hideously violent racial act. Christmas shopping continued apace in the town. Discussions about the lynching by Baltimore papers or the national media were regarded as “outside interference.” As a leading institution in the community, the Times “Statement,” signaled to whites that the town’s leadership had determined how the lynching was to be handled. Townspeople were ominously warned to “use [their] best judgment and pay little heed” to the way Williams’s murder would be characterized by off-Shore papers “who have no obligation to this peninsula.” The publishers advised their readers that “it behooves every one of us to co-operate in speeding up a return to absolutely normal and harmonious conditions.” Any white person who departed from the course set by the Times had good reason to believe that he or she would be ostracized, and perhaps worse, for exposing neighbors to prison and the community to national censure. Townspeople received the paper’s message. Although more than one hundred witnesses were called before a grand jury, none recognized any of the lynchers. The predictable result was a finding that Williams died “at the hands of persons unknown.” The long-term consequence was a stain on the entire community, which by its actions licensed the public murder of a black man.
Other Shore papers also failed to forthrightly condemn mob action. Instead editorials offered “explanations” for the actions of local lynch mobs. When a mob tried to attack Euel Lee’s lawyer in Snow Hill in 1931, editors of the Democratic Messenger from Worcester County explained that the mob “was composed of residents of Delaware, Virginia and from that section of Worcester County where the murdered Davis family lived.” The paper then reprinted an editorial written by Charles Truitt in the Salisbury Times on the “demonstration” in Snow Hill, in which Truitt described the lynching attempt as “Worcester’s answer to those who would interfere with the progress of court justice and retard the trial of a man who has twice confessed to the commission of the most atrocious crime in the county’s history. No one can say that Worcester’s answer to such tactics was not expressive.”
A week after George Armwood was lynched, the Somerset Marylander and Herald devoted its principal editorial to asking “Who Took Armwood to Baltimore?” The editors regarded Armwood’s removal to Baltimore as “the cause of the lynching.” “We honestly believe,” wrote the editors, “that had Armwood been lodged in the Somerset County Jail that night [when he was arrested], without State, or local protection, there would have been no lynching.” The editors also offered the assurance that the lynchers were not from Somerset County, insisting that “had there been built around Somerset County that night a fence that would have excluded all outsiders, there would have been no lynching.”
The local news reporting could also be outright misleading. The December 29th, 1931, edition of the Salisbury Times, for example, issued a banner headline reading “Court of Appeals Lee Case Must Be Conducted in Cambridge.” The subheadline read, “State’s Highest Tribunal Decides Trial Shall Be Conducted in Cambridge.” This was simply not true, and the editors of the Times must have known it. In its review of the First Judicial Circuit’s decision to move the venue of the Lee trial only as far as Cambridge, Maryland, rather than off the Eastern Shore, the Court of Appeals determined that it could not order a change of venue based on evidence that had not been before the Circuit Court. That new evidence was the lynching of Matthew Williams, which had occurred after the First Circuit’s decision denying a change of venue off the Shore and the hearing before the Court of Appeals on the First Circuit’s decision. Moreover, the Court of Appeals ruled that the decision on the venue was an interlocutory order, meaning that it could not be reviewed on appeal until after trial on the merits. The Court of Appeals went out of its way, however, to suggest that if Lee were tried and convicted on the Shore, the verdict would probably be overturned as unconstitutional, given the atmosphere of mob violence that pervaded the Shore. In essence, the Court of Appeals declined to review the appeal of the decision denying a change of venue but foreshadowed the likelihood that if the venue were not moved from the Shore, a verdict against Lee would not survive appeal. The First Judicial Circuit a week later moved the venue of the trial off the Shore to Towson, Maryland.
But the December 29th, 1931, article in the Times suggested that the Court of Appeals had affirmed the decision of the First Judicial Circuit and had conferred legitimacy on the decision to hold the trial in Cambridge. This interpretation was directly contrary to even the most rudimentary review of the court’s decision. Yet the Times chose to placate its readership, rather than report that the mob atmosphere, which much of its readership had at least tacitly endorsed, had tainted the ability of Lee to get a fair trial on the Shore.
The responsibility for skewed racial coverage of the events during this period does not fall entirely on the local media. The Baltimore Sun also had its limitations. It failed to report on black lynching victims and communities in ways that sufficiently conveyed their humanity and complexity. The Sun’s postlynching news coverage, while clearly more balanced than that of local Shore papers, focused exclusively on the perspectives and viewpoints of whites. Despite the extensive reportage following the Williams and Armwood lynchings, no story in the Sun included interviews with the family of either man or of residents of the black communities who were terrorized by the lynchings. The Washington Post, in its reportage, similarly devoted no attention to Williams as a man. His age was listed as 35, his name was often spelled incorrectly, and for the most part Williams was just “the Negro” in the pages of both the Post and the Sun. The Afro, by contrast, took pains to create a complex picture of Matthew Williams and George Armwood. The Afro’s description of Williams’s weakness for processed or straightened hair, and his trips to the Apex Beauty Shop to get “touch-ups,” added the kind of human dimension to the story of his death that helped Afro readers “recognize” Williams not just as a victim but as a man. Armwood, whose background was much darker than Williams’s, received similar treatment. His strength as a field laborer, his separation from his family at the age of 15 after his services were requested by a white couple, the circumstances surrounding reports that he had attacked a black woman the previous year—all of this was explored in detail in the Afro, giving readers an opportunity to gain a sense of Armwood’s life as an unskilled and uneducated laborer on the Eastern Shore.
The rich and multilayered reporting on the effect of the lynchings on the community and family of the lynched men in the Afro-American, and the Afro’s insistence on doing investigative rather than just passive reporting on the lynchings, highlight the shortcomings of the Sun’s coverage. The Afro included a front-page interview with Armwood’s mother, as well as interviews with young men who had grown up and worked with Armwood. Photos of Armwood’s extended family also appeared in the paper. Likewise, the Afro’s coverage of Williams’s death included a frontpage photo of Williams’s sister Olivia Simmons, who returned from her home in Philadelphia after receiving word of his death. A photo of the relatives with whom Williams grew up appeared in the paper as well, attesting to the fact that Williams had been raised in a close-knit, middleclass family in Salisbury.
By contrast, on the day after Williams was lynched, the front page of the Sun, under the caption “Mob Took Negro from Her Custody,” featured a large above-the-fold photograph of Helen Wise, the white nurse who was on duty at Peninsula Hospital when Williams was taken by the mob. On the day after Armwood was lynched, the front page of the Sun featured yet another large above-the-fold photograph of a white “bit player” in the lynching, Capt. Edward McKim Johnson of the state police. The studio photo of Capt. Johnson in full dress uniform ran under a small caption, “Among 9 Injured by Shore Mob.” This photographic emphasis on white players in the story diverted readers’ attention away from the real victims of the lynching—the black men, their families, and the communities where they lived.
One of the most important aspects of the Afro’s reportage of lynchings during this period was its insistence on questioning whether the lynched or nearly lynched man actually had committed the crime for which white townspeople had judged him guilty. The Afro challenged the “official story” and introduced the possibility of the black men’s innocence. Some of this was accomplished by the Afro’s interviews with the family of the lynching victim. An extensive interview with Matthew Williams’s sister, as well as with his cousin, who described his behavior on the day of the murder and lynching, for example, raised serious questions about whether Williams had any motive for or intention of killing Daniel Elliot on December 4th. The fact that Williams cautiously guarded his money and was missing a fairly large sum of money on the day he died made it only into the pages of the Afro.
Certainly the Sun enabled its readers to feel a kind of political outrage about the lynchings, but it failed to provide the information needed to fully comprehend the scope of the human tragedy and the lynchings’ devastating effect on the community. The Afro reported on how community members continued to suffer violent reprisals, and even that another black man was found dead and mutilated only a week after the Williams murder, in what some blacks suspected was another white mob killing. And readers were never given information by the Sun that might have led them to question whether the black lynching victims had in fact committed the murder or sexual assault of which they were accused.
The Salisbury Times might have been able to continue its vow of silence in the days after the Williams lynching had it not been for a stinging column penned by Baltimore satirist H. L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun. Entitled “Eastern Shore Kultur,” the column appeared on December 7th, 1931, and ignited a two-year battle of words between Eastern Shore papers and the Baltimore Sun, and a decades-long boycott of the Sun by many Shore people. The column described the Shore as an example of “what civilization can come to in a region wherein there are no competent police, little save a simian self-seeking in public office, no apparent intelligence on the bench, and no courage and no decency in the local press.” The people of the Shore, wrote Mencken, “are stupid enough, God knows, but they are probably less stupid than merely misinformed. There are no agencies of civilized opinion among them. They must depend for their ideas upon clowns in the pulpit, clowns on the stump, and clowns in the editorial chair.” Mencken singled out the Salisbury Times for contempt, deriding the paper for going to “the almost incredible length of dismissing the atrocity as a ‘demonstration.’ ”
Eastern Shore papers exploded in outrage. On December 8th, 1931, the Times reprinted Mencken’s entire column and offered only an editor’s note in which it defended its reportage and insisted that its “handling of the situation has occasioned the congratulations of hundreds of Eastern Shore people, white and colored . . . who have said that we did the very best thing any newspaper could possibly have done in a similar position.”
Over the next few months, and then years, Mencken and Shore papers continued to fire shots at each other. Shore people began a boycott of the Baltimore Sun, and later a boycott of products coming from Baltimore. Truck drivers and deliverymen from Baltimore became wary of bringing their goods into Salisbury after several trucks were attacked by local townspeople, who trashed the goods and burned Baltimore newspapers. The boycott of the Sun continued for many Shore people for decades, and well into the 1970s Shore residents refused to buy the Sun.
In sum, local papers on the Shore reinforced the sense of many Shore people that the lynchings of Williams and Armwood and the near lynchings of Lee and Davis were justified. Rather than providing an educational function or modeling the kind of self-reflection that would have served the Shore communities well during this period, local Shore papers reinforced for their residents a sense of self-righteous outrage. Although Baltimore papers voiced outrage at the lynchings, they did little to humanize the victims or to explore the effect of lynching on the local black community. This skewed and deficient reporting by white-owned papers left only the Afro to speak to and about blacks, who experienced firsthand the consequences of lynching. The result was the creation and perpetuation of a segregated account of the lynching, which has lasted for decades.